Serial: An Heir to Thorns and Steel, 4

An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.

An Heir to Thorns and Steel
Blood Ladders, Book 1
M.C.A. Hogarth

Episode 4


 

      I wanted to live on my own. My parents argued that I needed surveillance, not out of any concern that I might dishonor them but because they feared I might wake up paralyzed one day and no one would find me until I died in solitude. I didn’t dare tell them that if this nameless malady were to kill me I would have preferred to meet my end away from staring eyes; my mother would have been appalled and my father, a man given to blunt speech, would have imagined this an admission that I was feeling close to death. It would have made them fight harder to keep me in their house.
      As it was, the only way I could convince them to leave me in my modest student flat was by conceding to weekly visitations from Cliffton, a family retainer. By the time the carriage dropped me off he’d been and gone, leaving tea on the stove and a fire on the hearth. There wasn’t a servant in the family who didn’t know how much my joints ached, even in summer.
      I collapsed into the chair in front of the fire and wrapped the blanket around my shoulders. Two episodes in a day. My protestations to Ivy notwithstanding, I would have to call on a doctor. Not today . . . I felt weak, translucent, as if the sun would pass through me, blood and bone. But tomorrow after class . . . tomorrow I would see Stirley, and perhaps a miracle would well forth from the fabric of the world. Perhaps he would finally know what was wrong with me.
      My chin nodded until it rested against my chest. I dozed before the fire, absorbing the heat. In that not-quite-sleeping my mind raveled together imaginings from history and folklore: the Red Prince streaked in gore atop the pile of corpses he’d starved into that ultimate submission, facing a gaunt King, dripping blood from innumerable wounds, the injustices of royalty against the land written into his flesh. Between them a sword thrust into the sticky scarlet earth wept thorns that crawled into the ground and clasped it in a tearing embrace until it opened and demons dragged themselves from the desperate clutches of their prisons. One of them turned to me and spread thin lips over a nest of needle-shaped teeth. A long, narrow tongue spilled from its mouth and it hissed, “The Prince lives!”
      I jerked awake with every limb, every joint grasped in the jaws of pain, in the embrace of thorns, a pain so excruciating my eyes watered and my throat choked on a sob of disbelief. I lurched from the chair and fell onto my hands and knees in front of the fire’s embers, my fingers in spasm. A fragment of a thought: What did I think to accomplish? I could go nowhere to escape. But my body insisted, blind in its belief. There had to be a way to leave it behind. I had to move. To pace. To shed the pain like water.
      Except that I couldn’t, and there was nowhere to go, and every flex of a muscle, every shift of weight across my taut skin, every blink of my tear-clotted eyes summoned it, so that my body played an insane tug-of-war, shifting the pain from a palm to a knee to a segment of spine, from the back of my head to my closed throat, tighter and tighter until I couldn’t move and I collapsed in a jerking spiral coil on the rug.
      This, then, was it. It had to be. There could be no other end to this much pain except complete negation. I wept through the fire consuming me and waited for the sacrament of an ending.
      And waited.
      And waited and it didn’t come and it wasn’t going to come and I was going to live like this forever and I had never made plans for what I would do if I never stopped hurting–
      Again, the demon, hunched, spreading scaled and tattered wings like great black sails, like leprous storm clouds smothering a clean horizon. Its head was bowed over my groin–that searing, digging pain was its thousands of narrow teeth chewing on my hip, exposing a curve of pearlescent bone. My gorge rose.
      “The Prince lives,” a voice hissed behind me.
      “No.” Was that me? Another demon had poured out of the red dark and fastened its mouth on my ribs. I writhed, desperate, despairing, and yet it was not the pain I protested when I screamed, “NO!”
      “The Prince lives,” the voice repeated, with hideous amusement.
      “No-the-Prince-is-dead,” I sobbed, unable to breathe, choking on my own bile. Hot rivulets of blood ran down my side and narrow tongues scraped them off my glistening skin. “Executed. Gone. No more.”
      “If you were right,” the voice whispered, moist breath on the curve of my ear, “if you were right, then we could not be here. But we break free. And we will consume you.”
      I moaned.
      “We know you. And you are ours.” The point of a slick tongue traced the inner curve of my ear and I couldn’t squirm away. “Ours.” A parody of a lover, learning my skin until it hovered near the canal and then jammed inside, plugging it closed. A spear of pain erupted behind my eyes, so bright that my body and I denied it even as my back arched off the ground. White brilliance blotted everything away.
      Now, I thought. Now I will lose consciousness and when I wake it will be over . . .
      . . . but I didn’t. Something sucked the pain out of every limb in my body, replacing it with nothing. I felt hollow, strewn across the rug like a broken doll. And yet my relief was so vast my weeping renewed, though my eyes ached and my throat had gone hot and tight.
      A fluke. It had to be a fluke. This weakness that constrained me from rising was the product of a fevered imagination, just like my delusion of being eaten alive by demons. A product of too much reading by candlelight. And that prickly empty sensation, the one that felt like the promise of lightning to come, the one that made me feel that if I so much as twitched the pain would swamp me, clogging every extremity to dreadful surfeit . . . that too was a conjuring, a bad dream.
      But I was not in the habit of deceiving myself. I stared at the sullen embers on the hearth, my cheek painfully pressed against the rug, and knew that something had changed. My disease had grown fangs, teeth . . . and voices. The first two were horror enough, but the latter. . . .
      I had always feared for my health. But the prospect of going insane was unbearable. As the embers clicked and settled on their way to ash, I struggled to control my breathing, to will strength into limbs gone as limp and weak as wet paper. Could I? I could. I rolled onto my aching knees and trembling wrists. From there I staggered to my feet, grasping wildly for the wall. I caught it before I fell, but my fingers did not have the strength to maintain a grip and I slid almost to my knees before I recovered.
      I stood, but hunched. My clothes clung to my body, sodden with rank sweat. But somehow I reached for a coat and forced myself out to the street to hail a carriage. I couldn’t wait until tomorrow. I had to see a doctor.

***

This book was me grappling with illness. Can you tell! :,

Anyway…we are already $5 toward our Saturday episode! Another $15, or three reviews, will get us there!


  1. Wow, the descriptions had me gasping for breath, i couldn’t breathe. ack!

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